TThere's a special kind of venom produced by certain bitter, aging women that's so caustic as to be nearly unwatchable. But there's an equally venomous part of us, as our best playwrights and filmmakers know, that simply can't look away.
That venom flows in lacerating streams from the mouths of Betsy Bittar and Mary Loftus in the New Phoenix Theatre's production of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," which opened Thursday night. If you look close, you can practically see their bifurcated tongues.
"Beauty Queen" is the play that got the darkly controversial Irish playwright Martin McDonagh (he of "The Pillowman" and "The Cripple of Inishmaan") his start in 1996. It amounts to a fascinating, heartbreaking and somewhat heavy-handed ethnography of an insular world in which the damaged egos of two unstable women propel the show's doomed narrative into the very depths of intergenerational hate.
The New Phoenix production, under the able direction of Joe Natale, does its level best to let the audience taste every bit of McDonagh's poison. The show has a rough-around-the-edges feel that blends well enough into its less than glimmering setting, but at this point lacks the visceral chemistry that makes tortured mother/daughter dramas so devilishly fun to watch. But the show hits all the major points and stands up well enough on the strength of McDonagh's writing and some fine performances.
The show takes place entirely in a ramshackle kitchen in the small town of Leenane in County Galway, Ireland, a place seemingly devoid of all hope and all but the most fleeting opportunities. Mag, a terminally spiteful old woman who spends most of her time barking orders from her rocking chair, lives with her 40-year-old daughter, Maureen, the former patient of a mental institution who daydreams about the day when her mother finally kicks over and dies.
Can you say recipe for disaster?
Not quite, at least until the final ingredient arrives: Pato Dooley, a former neighborhood man who returns to Leenane before jetting back to work, develops a love interest in Maureen, a nagging fact that Mag does most everything in her power to prevent. The consequences are, as might be expected from McDonagh, rather macabre.
As Mag, Mary Loftus turns in a fine and thoroughly acidic portrayal of a woman trapped somewhere between senility and cruelty. Just when you feel sorry for her wandering wits, you realize that there's a serpentine method to her madness. Loftus plays on our sympathies effectively before utterly destroying them. Bittar, whose rendition of Maureen contains all the requisite and broadly painted emotions, packs a firm enough grip on her character to allow us a genuine glimpse into Maureen's soul.
Eric Rawski (Ray Dooley) is charming as the comic relief, as is Kreuzer. The set, by Dyan O'Connell, is a convincing recreation of a run-down Irish kitchen with lighting design (John Malinowski) and sound design (Tom Makar) rounding out the show's devilish overtones.
WHAT: "The Beauty Queen of Leenane"
WHEN: Opened Thursday night and runs through March 14
WHERE: New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 N. Johnson Park
INFO: 853-1334 or www.newphoenixtheatre.com